When you can’t say no

3 Sep
The Persistence of Memory Dali

The Persistence of Memory


Long read on a difficult topic.

There’s an abundance of evidence in the literature that women who have been sexually abused in childhood are twice as likely to experience sexual assaults at some later point in our lives, than are women who have not.

The reasons for this are many: an inability to recognise and avoid predators, high risk behaviour, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use; inability to refuse unwanted sexual contact, inability to behave assertively with a man in a sexual situation, emotional flooding and numbing when in situations of unwanted sexual activity. All these can lead to what is known as “re-victimisation,” and that in turn leads to long-lasting and high levels of psychological distress and compounded trauma, as the re-traumatising impact of the adult abuse adds to and exacerbates that already experienced in childhood.

Somehow, after years of severe CSA I escaped re-victimisation, not by any conscious effort on my part because I was entirely unaware of the perils that can be the consequence of early abuse, but because I didn’t encounter any predators. I had a suite of other significant difficulties to deal with as a result of that childhood, such as trusting people, fear of abandonment, hyper-vigilance, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and the rest, but the re-traumatisation of further sexual assault was not among the obstacles I encountered in my desire to fully live my life, in spite of my childhood.

Until last year, that is, when I became another statistic. Another survivor of CSA who experienced re-victimisation, re-traumatisation, and is now on the long, long road to getting my life back. Again.

I’m reminded here of the Twitter hash tag “ Not all men.” Intended to counter generalisations about men’s behavior, the phrase has been criticized for deflecting conversations from uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault. Whenever women write and speak about our negative experiences with men, someone inevitably chimes in, “Not all men are like that.” I’ve said it myself, because I’m wary of the stereotyping that is inevitable with gender-based arguments, and I don’t like it when it’s used against women. At the same time, there’s no doubt the phrase is used to derail and distract. Instead of a discussion about sexual assault it becomes a brawl about “not all men do it.” I don’t know how we circumvent this, unless we replace the word “men” with “predators,” when we’re talking about male perpetrated violence against women.

There’s no doubt that not all men are predatory, and the men I encountered for decades posed no threat to me.


Eerily, the circumstances of last year’s sexual assault almost exactly replicated scenes from my childhood. I continue to be tormented by the possibility that the man had sufficient knowledge about my history to make this deliberate, rather than coincidental. I have written about my childhood in some detail on this blog, and in my PhD, which is online and easily accessible. In fact, at our second meeting the man asked me about my childhood abuse, and it was after I’d briefly answered that he made his first sexual overture.

I’ve never found it easy to speak of those childhood events. Writing, though, is another experience altogether. Writing allows me to make some kind of order from the chaos of that time, and bring the fragments of myself back together into something approaching a whole. We are nothing if not story, and the urge to have our story make sense to us is a powerful one. There’s a necessary discipline in autobiographical writing that allows the author to stand back from the immediate rawness of her own narrative. She becomes an observer and recorder, a witness, bearing testament to her own self. These are skills I acquired to help save myself from annihilation by the dark magnitude of sexual abuse. Stepping back, while at the same time never letting go of her, that child who couldn’t say no.


The assault last year took place in a car parked in a secluded area, one of my stepfather’s settings of choice when I was a child. I had gone to considerable lengths to ensure that situation, one that had occurred with this man on two previous occasions, was not repeated. The present-day experiences had left me struggling with a crippling distress I didn’t recognise, couldn’t analyse, and had no desire to repeat. I told the man I had been distressed by the sexual encounters in the car, and I didn’t want to do it again. He responded by assuring me that he never wanted to do anything that distressed me, and that the manner in which we next met was entirely up to me. He agreed when I said our next meeting would be in public, and there would be no intimate contact. I resolved that I would use that meeting to end the relationship.

Unfortunately, the man did not respect our agreement, and without any attempt to renegotiate the terms of engagement, drove me to a secluded place. I think it was when I realised he was unnecessarily driving me somewhere that I first began to feel a vague unease. But I had no reason to distrust him. Rather, I distrusted my own feelings.


Traumatic events can lead to extremes of remembering and forgetting. The events may be remembered with intense vividness, or deeply repressed. Often there’s a combination of both. Traumatic events can remain fixed in the memory just as they occurred, their intensity unassuaged by the passage of time and experience. The extreme emotional arousal experienced in such a situation may account for the unique nature of traumatic memory, as the body’s chemical response to terror interferes with normal memory function.

I had never experienced flashbacks to do with the specific childhood circumstance of my stepfather’s car, though I have over the years struggled with them in other settings. They became increasingly infrequent, until I almost never experienced them at all. The emotional scaffolding of traumatic memory was, I believed, sufficiently disassembled after years of hard work in and out of therapy, and I was free.


I didn’t like how I’d felt about the sexual encounters in the car with the man. They felt demeaning, but I initially attributed those feelings to the adolescent and unsatisfactory nature of such encounters that I wouldn’t expect, as a mature woman with a long and satisfying partnership behind her, to enjoy.

However, I had not in my life thus far experienced anything that might trigger memories of my stepfather’s sexual assaults on me in his car. I remember on one or two occasions in my life being a passenger in a car with leather seats. The smell of those seats nauseated me, and caused me a strange emotional discomfort, but it wasn’t until years later I remembered my stepfather’s car had leather seats, and I was able to make the connection.

What was necessary for the trigger to become fully operational was that the experience be forced upon me. The unease that started up as the man drove away from where we were supposed to be, became the silent terror I endured when my stepfather picked me up from my boarding school and drove me somewhere I did not want to go, to do things I did not want to do. I was unable even to ask the man where he was going. Already I’d lost touch with the present, and the process of being engulfed by the past had, unbeknown to me, begun.


Trigger. There’s a term with its fair share of controversy. Last year, in the US, there were demands across many university campuses for trigger warnings to be attached to all manner of texts, so that students would know in advance that some of them contained material that might cause distress. The term “trigger warning’ first appeared in feminist spaces to alert women that topics such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women were discussed in these spaces, at times graphically, to give them the opportunity to choose not to go there. Fair enough. This makes sense. However, things got rather out of hand, for mine, when students demanded The Great Gatsby be marked with a trigger warning, and various other kinds of, for mine, silly demands that, like the “not all men” claim, serves to derail and distract from the very serious matters of discussions of violence against women, and the provision of opportunities for women to speak out, in detail if we wish, about what has been done to our bodies, our minds and our hearts. There is a dark world of difference between feeling uncomfortable or disturbed by confronting scenes in literature, and experiencing a flashback.

What is a trigger, then? It’s smell, sight, sound, taste, touch, a circumstance that particularly evokes the memory of a past traumatic event. It results in a flashback that returns the victim to the original trauma, with all the intensity and immediacy of the initial experience. Obviously, triggers are unique to the individual survivor.

A flashback can be visual, when traumatic events are vividly re-seen by the mind’s eye. It can be experienced entirely in the body, with no visual component. The body has its own memories, stored in all its secret places.

The flashback can consist entirely of feelings, with no images attached to them. For me, it is generally the latter, accompanied by bodily sensations. I rarely visualise. I am flooded with overwhelming and chaotic emotions that make no sense in the present, and that paralyse me. I feel a sensation of extreme cold in my belly, and I tremble at my core. My legs feel unusually weak, and I fear they won’t work. Terror dominates, and keeps me physically locked in place. All this is concealed. There are no overt manifestations. As a child I knew I couldn’t show any fear or resistance. I had to comply, while inside me the terror roared and swirled.

These are the things that happened to me last year with the man in the car. It was as if the two earlier encounters were preparatory rumbles, and this third one, compounded by the shock and disbelief of his profound betrayal, his abduction of me against our agreement and my firmly expressed wishes, unleashed the full force of traumatic memory. I could do and say nothing. I couldn’t refuse, and I couldn’t resist. I complied.

The intensity was such that eventually I became numbed, and dissociated. I watched myself take his penis in my mouth and suck until he came, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I saw the leaves of the trees through the windscreen, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I felt nothing, and I felt, chaotically, everything. He moaned, like my stepfather. He even said, repeatedly, “We’re not really doing this,” a phrase so reminiscent of my stepfather’s order that I forget what had happened and tell no one that to this day, I feel shaken by the coincidence.

I told no one for almost twelve months.


My stepfather, though a violent man in other areas of family life, was never violent with me sexually. Rather he wanted to be a lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. The man was not violent either. He wanted to be my lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. They wanted me to enjoy them, and to enjoy myself. I’ve often thought that this deeply corrupted message of “love” and apparent consideration for my enjoyment in circumstances that make enjoyment inconceivable, has messed with my head to such a degree that I will never entirely clear myself of its corruption. They walked softly, and carried the big stick of love and harm made one. They saw me only as a means to their end.

This is characteristic of predators. They are unable to distinguish between love and great harm, and so they perpetrate the latter, while proclaiming the former. There is no firm ground left for you to stand on, once you’ve encountered ambiguities of that complexity.


As a child I found solace in books, and in music. Later, I found writing. Against all odds I became a reasonably accomplished pianist, I think because when I sat at the piano in some unaccountable way my body became mine again, through the music I made. At every possible opportunity I hid myself away in a practice room, and played. There was an ageing nun at my boarding school who liked to sit beside me, and knit black mittens while she listened. Her presence was comforting, though we rarely spoke more than a few words.

A few weeks ago, struggling with after-effects over which I have little control, I felt a powerful desire to play the piano again, as I haven’t for years. In a fine piece of serendipity a woman round the corner had a piano she didn’t want anymore, and now it’s mine. I have much of my old music, kept since girlhood. When it arrived, I approached the instrument with a great deal of trepidation. What if I couldn’t play anymore?

My fingers are stiff and inflexible, compared to how they used to be. I’m starting with scales and arpeggios. Yet even as I fumble I feel the return of the mysterious force that moves through my fingers and connects my body to the source of sound. I hear the musical possibilities in the mundane and repetitive notes of a scale. I feel the joy of making sound, the satisfaction, humble as the sound I make is. I can’t resist attempting to play a simple piece, though I hear my teacher’s voice telling me I’m not ready yet. A sweet arabesque, and to my delight the fingering comes back to me, it’s still there after all these years, another kind of memory triggered by an altogether different set of circumstances, a welcome memory, a memory that reminds me who I am, and what I can still be.

When you can’t say no, you have no freedom, no agency. You’re anybody’s victim. When you write, when you play music, when you read the text you act with agency, you exercise your freedom. You are a human being, no longer only a means to another’s end.


Next week, we are expecting our newest family member, who we already know is a little girl. Today I bought pink rompers for her, then I said to her mother on the phone, I had to buy just one pink thing, I don’t know why, I don’t believe in all that stupid stuff, I’m not buying one more pink thing, I swear, just this one.

I want to be here to help teach her everything she needs to know.

I want to be here to read to her.

I want to be here to teach her how to play the piano, should she be so inclined.

I want to be here. That is all.



19 Responses to “When you can’t say no”

  1. Elisabeth September 3, 2015 at 8:54 am #

    Another post that leaves me wanting to say something more, something to connect us in this awful world where predators feign concern and love. At last, I understand what these men have done to you, especially this latest. I understand the pull back to the past. And I understand the need to put it into words, if only through writing.

    I think of your other blog, the political one, where people comment all over the place, but here in this more silent place of pain and contemplation, fewer people respond.

    I suspect it’s not because they have not read these words, these beautiful breathtaking words, but more because they find it hard to find words to say something in response, rather like when we are faced with death. It’s almost too awful to contemplate.

    I salute you for your courage in writing this, and embrace you through the page, though I’m not big on touch, for reasons similar to your own.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jennifer Wilson September 3, 2015 at 10:48 am #

      Thank you, Elisabeth. I don’t expect comments, I don’t know what I’d say myself, really.
      I just send it out there and hope it will touch a chord in someone, add to understanding, give voice to what is silenced.
      Thank you.


  2. Toni Blackmore September 3, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    I call them haunted houses, those unwelcome and unbidden hijackings of the present by the transgressions of predatory fuckers past. Hope this one fades quickly and leaves you with reinforced defences. Who am I kidding? I hope it leaves you with an itchy capsicum spray trigger finger too. And one last thing – how dare he, how fucking dare he manipulate acquiescence and treat it like consent? Bastard.

    Glad you have the balm of music and heavenly baby girls.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jennifer Wilson September 3, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

      That’s a good image, the haunted house.
      It reminds me of an episode in The Sopranos when Tony is haunted by his childhood past, the symbol being a house.

      Baby girls – we’ve had mostly boys for years!


  3. MST September 3, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. doug quixote September 3, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    Some people are users, some are used.

    Some are predators, some are prey.

    It is interesting to note that those who suffer abuse as children are twice as likely to suffer abuse later in life. The factors are no doubt myriad, as you set out.

    But perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a child is to have its parent remarry and thus acquire a step-parent.

    If a child dies or is suffering abuse, one rarely has to look any further. It is sad but true.

    I offer you a virtual hug.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Michaela Tschudi September 3, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    Thanks Jennifer.

    Like you, I find it very hard to talk about these things, but writing has brought some solace.

    As I read this, I was reminded of something Robert Frost wrote: “Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.”

    May your piano bring you much joy. Xx

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Marilyn September 3, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    As readers here know my main predator was my father. I spent years blocking out the sexual abuses and finger fucking by the vile coward but one event caused not only flashbacks and a suicide attempt when I was 19.

    I was a rebel runaway by then, I ran away from everyone who seemed in any way nasty and I seemed to invite every thug in the world to come and bash or rape me. Several did.

    I was in an old house in Whyalla when someone opened up the servery door in the wall to pass food from the kitchen to the lounge.

    When the assaults mainly happened on me by the bastard it was in an old house with a servery that led from our lounge to my bedroom and my father always made me sleep right under the servery so he could drag me out of my bed without anyone noticing. I was a pretty tiny kid so it wasn’t too hard, then he would push me back to fall on the floor.

    He would beat me unmercifully one day and give me expensive stuff the next.

    My revenge on the lifetime of distrust and inability to believe in people was that he died alone and drooling and had no funeral because no-one wanted to go.

    I still have nightmares about the bloody servery door when I am stressed out.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson September 3, 2015 at 4:40 pm #

      Marilyn, I have never met you, and sometimes you aggravate the shit out of me, but I absolutely bow to your courage and strength and indomitable spirit.

      I salute you, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marilyn September 3, 2015 at 7:10 pm #

        Why would I aggravate the shit out of you? Because I call out the cowards?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer Wilson September 3, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

          No, because i sometimes can’t cope when you get abusive and aggressive. Mostly I admire you so all in all its ok


  7. hudsongodfrey September 3, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    I don’t quite know what to say other than I imagine it takes tremendous courage to face those demons and go so far as to pen such a detailed account.

    By “I imagine” I don’t mean to use the demeaning sense that might go with phrases like “I imagine you think you’re funny”, when somebody makes an aside at your expense. I mean I really don’t think I know.

    If it feels natural and right to tell it this way then kudos is due, even if you don’t realise that hardly anybody shares these stories with anything like the degree of introspection you’ve achieved here. Mostly we’re just told that abuse happened, the focus goes straight onto the abuser, and everybody expects its kinder not to expect more detail from victims.

    Anyone who has experienced trauma of a loved one might perhaps know differently. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to stop talking about things you really don’t feel equipped to absorb.

    There’s a right time and place to offer insight, yours is remarkable and I’m glad you were able to share it.

    Best wishes for all going well next week. I can think of few more life affirming experiences that you don’t have to clean up after.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson September 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

      I’m forensic, so I’m told HG, and a deconstructionist with it, so I’ll unpack just about anything that looks complicated.

      Thank you for your good wishes.


  8. kristapet September 4, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    Thank you for writing this, and ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience” both resonate with me for different reasons. “When you can’t say no” helps me understand my behaviour when I haven’t been able to be assertive. Your words, which paint your experiences, descriptively, I find, echo my own.Thank you for your ‘articulate’ courage. It has helped me articulate my feelings and own experiences that seem unreal, now I can admit, were real.Your writing portrays the experience of this abuse so clearly, expressing your feelings about it, and dealing with the memories and struggle with it. This honesty is what helps the most, and that is a gift as well. Art is my piano. Your writing and courage are “breathtaking” as ‘Elizabeth’ says. Your writing is a golden light, to make transparent, transgressions, affronted on us, where as, silence is keeping these awful secrets hidden in the dark, with our fears. In writing, you light a candle to help others find the courage to reveal their secrets, and to come out of the dark, and break this silence.
    Thank you for your gift with words and courage to write them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jennifer Wilson September 4, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

      Thank you for leaving this post, it is so good to know the words mean much to you. I send them out not knowing where they’ll go, hoping they’ll be of use.

      I wish you all the best with your art. Creativity, whatever form it takes, helps restore unto ourselves

      Liked by 1 person

  9. becoming imago September 7, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    You explain and describe very well. I, too, know what it is like to be unable to say no, or to even assert anything for myself against others’ wishes. I still struggle with it. I, too, had an abuser who tried to be a “lover” and make me into one, forcing my body to enjoy the invasion and oppression, forcing me to act how he wanted me to, to hide how I really felt. I hate being another statistic. I was aware of re-victimization but still walked right into it with my first partner. It is comforting to feel understood at this moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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